First Thunderbolt storage device strikes the market

The first storage solution based on Apple Inc.’s Thunderbolt interface technology has hit the market, and it’s designed to give a jolt of speed and flexibility to media and entertainment SMBs.

The Pegasus line of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage solutions has been unveiled by Promise Technology Inc. Users will be able to store and edit video, and playback multiple streams of uncompressed 8- and 10-bit HD video on the new line of Thunderbolt-enabled Macs, Promise says.

It’s just one of many new advances in storage technology that SMBs have to consider when looking at ways to make storing and moving their data faster, more efficient and cost-effective. To help them wade through what’s out there, we’ll size up Thunderbolt and two other storage technologies – USB 3.0 and Fusion-io – in this story.

Related Story: What you need to know about Thunderbolt

Pegasus is the first peripheral based on Thunderbolt, a new peripheral-connection technology developed by Intel Corp. and Apple. It combines audio, video, data and power in a single connection and allows high-speed connection of peripherals like hard drives, video-capture solutions, RAID arrays and network interfaces. Apple is making Thunderbolt (originally developed under the name Light Peak) ports a standard feature across its entire MacBook Pro line. Pegasus is the first peripheral device for use in those ports.

Pegasus comes in four-bay and six-bay configurations ranging from four to 12TB capacity. Promise says it improves the ability to manipulate and edit, plus perform multitasking like editing multiple streams while moving large files to the host system. Promise is touting Pegasus as an affordable, pro-level package for use on location or in the studio.

“For the SMB space we’ve been putting a big target on production, post-production and photography (streams) in the rich media market. So for businesses in that range, it’s really (offering) capacity and extreme performance,” says Billy Harrison, product manager of NAS (network attached storage) and DAS (direct attached storage) at Promise’s Silicon Valley office.

Using Thunderbolt’s high-speed I/O, Pegasus can deliver performance up to 864MB/s, which Promise says is more than 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and eight times faster than FireWire 800. The company says it can also provide big storage space for other Apple applications like Aperture, iPhoto and iMovie and is fully compatible with Time Machine.

Pegasus has two channels of bi-directional 10 Gb/s performance capability, so backups can happen while videos or playlists are being edited, Promise says.

Early demand for Pegasus RAID devices has been “very good” and met the company’s expectations so far, Harrison says.

Promise plans to release additional Thunderbolt products hovering between the consumer and prosumer market, Harrison says. The next, SANLink, is due for release this winter. It’s an adapter with a dual 4G fibre link that can connect to external fibre channel storage or to an Xsan network.

Now that the very first Thunderbolt device has hit the shelves, let’s look at some other storage trends and what they mean for SMBs.

Thunderbolt

Let’s start with our newsmaker first. The advantage of this technology is obvious: it’s really freaking fast.

“It’s about 10 times as fast as USB 2.0 or FireWire and about twice as fast as USB 3.0,” says Dave Pearson, enterprise storage and networking analyst at IDC Canada.

“For the SMB market, if you’re in a position to use Thunderbolt, it would be the fastest (storage interface) of this type. It’s definitely top of the charts,” he says.

When it comes to storage capacity, Thunderbolt is an interface, so how much you can store depends on what storage device it’s connected to, Pearson says. But since Thunderbolt lets you add up to six devices on the same chain, “you get a certain amount of capacity increase over USB 3.0 from that ability to daisy-chain devices,” he says.

It’s fast, but will Thunderbolt zap your IT budget? Though Pearson doesn’t compare prices of individual devices, he predicts Thunderbolt-based devices will come with a “price premium” because any company that wants to use Thunderbolt technology has to shell out a licensing fee to Intel. The first-to-market Pegasus RAID peripheral will set you back $999 for a four-bay 4TB configuration or $1,999 for a six-bay 12TB design.

Since Apple co-developed Thunderbolt with Intel, the Mac maker has exclusive rights to make hardware with Thunderbolt ports for one year, a deal that Pearson says “gives Apple a leg up” but isn’t great for rolling out the interface technology for wider appeal.

The moratorium ends early next year, so “we’ll find out how many other vendors are really on board” the Thunderbolt wagon at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this spring, Pearson predicts.

It’s worth noting that LaCie is slated to release the second Thunderbolt peripheral, the LaCie Little Big Disk portable hard drive, in winter 2011. Weighing in at just 1.5 lbs, it’s being promoted on LaCie’s Web site as an on-the-fly storage solution for journalists who want to quickly download and edit a lot of video in the field. Perhaps some of them might use it to cover the LaCie Little Big Disk launch this winter?

USB 3.0

The third incarnation of USB technology is also known as SuperSpeed USB. This interface for transferring data is just starting to emerge in portable storage devices. The first consumer products with 3.0 capabilities hit the market in January 2010. Companies with USB 3.0 portable external hard drives on the market include Toshiba, Buffalo Technology, LaCie, Seagate, and EMC Corp. subsidiary Iomega.

Some newer laptop lines already include USB 3.0 ports, such as HP’s EliteBook, the Toshiba Qosimo X500, and Sony VAIO. But USB 3.0 doesn’t exactly have widespread availability yet, says Gartner analyst Joe Unsworth.

“It’s not pervasive in host products, which is necessary to realize the higher performance. It will become more pervasive in 2013 and beyond when more PCs have USB 3.0 ports,” Unsworth writes in an e-mail to ITBusiness.ca.

What about speed?

“In terms of typical performance, (USB 3.0) should average 10 times faster than USB 2.0, but theoretical limits never bear out in the real world,” Pearson warns, noting that actual data transfer speed depends on several variables, especially the actual controllers used with the USB 3.0 interface.

No, USB 3.0 is not as fast as new kid on the block Thunderbolt. Compared to Thunderbolt, however, it’s “more flexible, more commonplace and reasonably cost-effective for SMBs for their peripherals,” Pearson says. “It’s very familiar for people and most hardware manufacturers are supporting it now.” He adds that USB 3.0 is a powered port, so your external hard drive could also run off that USB port.

USB 3.0 is also designed to reduce power consumption compared with the 2.0 version, something no SMB out there would probably mind.

Fusion-io

A lot of the buzz around this Utah company centres around its chief scientist, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and a June IPO that raked in $234 million. It also has heavyweight customers like Myspace, Credit Suisse, shoe retailer Zappos and Facebook, with the latter singlehandedly generating 52 per cent of Fusion-io’s revenue last quarter.

While USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt are interface technologies allowing faster, easier connectivity to storage devices, Fusion-io makes PCI Express (PCIe) cards that are loaded with flash memory and inserted directly into servers.

“It’s not an interconnect, it’s not a connection format. It produces internal devices that depend on the PCIe connectivity within servers,” Pearson explains.

Fusion-io says one of its ioMemory modules contains 100 times the capacity density of dynamic random access memory, or DRAM. Server vendors HP, IBM and Dell all offer Fusion-io technology as an option on their servers. Fusion-io just inked an exclusive deal with Tech Data that will allow fewer than 15 Canadian solution providers to sell its products to Canadian enterprises.

Fusion-io’s PCIe cards provide the same storage as drives “but much, much faster and (the cards) also tend to be much, much smaller. So it’s very small capacity, extremely high speed storage for servers,” Pearson says.

With Fusion-io, the key selling point isn’t speed, it’s efficiency. The smaller size of the PCIe cards provides speed “in a smaller footprint that consumes less power than conventional HDD (hard disk drive) technology,” Unsworth says via email.

Fusion-io gives you more speed at lower power consumption costs, but it might just be a little more than what the average SMB needs or can afford. Fusion-io helps with high performance computing “but not what’s found typically in the general populace of SMBs,” Pearson says, and “the upfront cost is expensive,” in the thousands rather than hundreds of dollars. 

Christine Wong is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness.ca.

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